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SBC 2021 in Review: Part 6 The Forest and the Trees...A Path Forward?

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

What's next for the Southern Baptist Convention?

As we bring this series to a close, it will be helpful in this final post to think of each of the specific issues in the first 5 posts as “trees” in the larger “forest” that is the Southern Baptist Convention. Sometimes we can be so focused on one tree that we miss the larger forest. Sometimes, we can be so focused on one issue, that we miss the larger movements going on around us.

What makes up the forest of the Convention?

What gives the convention its shape and form? Historically, the “forest” has been a combination of 3 major activities within the SBC: 1) International Missions (IMB), 2) North American Church planting (NAMB), and 3) Theological Education (Seminaries). This is what initially brought the convention together and gave it its birth.

To use another analogy, we can think about the SBC as a wheel—and these 3 groups (IMB, NAMB, and Seminaries) have served as the major supporting spokes that keep things tied together and moving. They serve as shared convictions for the churches of the convention.

Additionally, these three causes have given the churches of the SBC their major platforms for participation. Churches are often disconnected from leadership, committee meetings, strategy meetings, etc. But, churches can send mission teams, plant new churches, and send men and women to seminary. These big three activities have kept, and continue to keep churches tied to, and feeling a part of, the larger SBC.

This is also represented in what the convention emphasizes at its annual meeting. Typically, the annual meeting allots large amounts of time to emphasize the actions of the IMB, NAMB, and the 6 Seminaries.

-In the past, the IMB hosted a missionary sending service to close out the first night of the annual meeting. It is quite something to attend. The IMB president preaches, missionaries are identified (if possible, depending on where in the world they are going), and the missionaries are then commissioned in the presence of the gathered convention, followed by a time of prayer. Historically, this has been one of the most well attended portions of the annual meeting, and rightly so.

  • This year, for some reason, no commissioning service was held at the annual meeting. Dr. Paul Chitwood, the current IMB President, did report some encouraging numbers, which can be viewed here.

-The North American Mission Board hosted its annual SEND conference the day before the annual meeting started (in place of the pastor’s conference, but that's another story).

  • The SEND conference brought together a crowd of almost 10,000 Southern Baptists. Big name performers like Micheal W. Smith and CeCe Winans performed and led singing. Pastor Tony Evans was the keynote speaker for the event. The theme of the Conference was “On Mission Together.”

-Finally, on Wednesday, the Six Seminary Presidents gave the addresses and updates on the status of our schools.

  • On the whole, things are going very well. Three of our six seminaries are among the largest protestant seminaries in the world by student population, with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, ranking as the largest. I’ve had the privilege of attending and graduating from both Southern, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary).

  • Our seminaries are led and staffed by world-class evangelical theologians. We are seeing record highs for enrollment, and men and women are graduating in record numbers. It's a good season for our seminaries!

These big three have held the convention together almost from the beginning. They have been the focus of SBC time, energy, effort, and cooperative program funds. The question before us now is this: Can these big three continue supporting the whole? Can these big trees keep the smaller ones in check? Can they hold the center together?

  • This is a growing question in my mind, and in the minds of a number of my own friends. I ask the question for several reasons…

1 - The SBC is Growing Larger.

-Numerically, the SBC remains the largest protestant denomination by and large with nearly 50,000 churches and 17 million members.

  • Growing Diversity.

-On the one hand, growing more diverse is a good thing. On the other hand, growing more diverse means things must change. And, I'm not sure how prepared the convention, as a whole, is prepared and willing to adopt the needed changes that are coming with the growing diversity.

  • The bill for change has been delivered, but who wants to pay it?

One issue with the growing diversity in the convention is the larger issue of wokeness in the culture. This leads to the second point...

  • Expanding Perspectives.

-With the record growth of non-white ethnicities in the convention, it should come as no surprise that these non-white brothers and sisters bring different perspectives on things. Things like government structure, cultural issues, political viewpoints, preferences in worship style, and more. And this has an influence...

  • The Influence of Culture.

-The complicate things further, the larger culture is expanding/unraveling (whichever term you prefer...I lean toward the latter) at an alarming rate.

  • The political landscape is trending downward and seems a constant disappointment.

  • The idea of personhood is disintegrating into chaos.

  • Sexual ethics seem to be a thing of the past.

  • And in many ways, up is the new down, and down up.

-And, in various ways, these cultural influences are making themselves known inside the SBC. The churches of the convention exist, after all, within this culture.

2 - The SBC, like many Churches, is experiencing substantial Generational Change.

-As we just noted, the larger American culture is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before.

  • Overall values.

  • The rise , and more central location of Technology.

  • Sexual Ethics.

  • The fabric of reality.

-And many of these cultural shifts are [somewhat] more easily navigated by younger generations as opposed to the older. Although, many of these changes occurring have left the foundation of objective truth and wandered off into pure myth (ex. Transgender revolution).

-Alongside the changes in the larger world, the generational values that are shifting within the SBC. This happens every so often in human history and culture. For a time, one generation passes on their way of doing things to the next, and things chug along happily. “This is the way my daddy did things, and his daddy, and his daddy before him.” Or, so it goes.

But then something comes along, or something occurs that thrusts something new into the equation and disrupts the natural flow of generational traditions. We saw this with the industrial revolution, which occurred over a span of 4-5 decades, but really intensified in the later part of the 19th century. One of the major changes that it brought was a move from the country to the city. What was once an agricultural country made up of many small, private farms quickly became a country of cities where people lived and moved about urban centers rather than living in rural communities. The long-term effect of the shift took several decades and generations of people to work through, but think of how differently we live now: Most people do not even know a farmer, much less, how to farm. The average Generation Z’er might think tomatoes and apples just grow right in the bins at the organic food mart...

A similar shift has been occurring for sometime, and is rapidly picking up speed. One of the major ways it is affecting the SBC is that we are moving from a time when Christianity was a major cultural influence and widely accepted to a time when it is hated and marginalized. And it seems to be happening almost overnight. In a recent post, theologian Carl Truman said it very well…

  • One thing, though, is certain: The days when Christians could be both respected by their society and faithful to their beliefs are drawing rapidly to a close. The terms of membership in civic society and in the church are becoming increasingly antithetical. It will not matter how much you talk about racial justice, for example, if you do not toe the line on sexual and gender justice. And public repetition of the trendy liturgies of Christian self-loathing on any number of social issues will not save you. Progressive ideology has one thing in common with the law of God: As James 2:10 says of the latter, he who fails in one part is guilty of failing in all parts. Selective wokeness will not gain you immunity from the social justice wrath to come.”

-The SBC, like many churches and denominations, is caught squarely in the middle. So far, the SBC at large has stood firm on biblical principles. We praise God for that. But the storm is only beginning and growing larger. Only time will tell how this shift will permanently affect the convention.

3 - The SBC is Experiencing Political Change.

-The convention is growing larger. With that growth comes diversity—diversity of perspectives, viewpoints, convictions, and...political leanings.

Historically, the SBC has been viewed as a Republican powerhouse, even being exploited as such in the 1980’s and 90’s. But, with the growth of diversity in the overnight over the last 20 years, it is no longer a Republican monolith.

For a long time, members of the SBC—and the larger culture—could count on the convention to support Republican causes, have Republican sympathies, etc. But that time is past. Things are changing, and those types of assumptions cannot be made.

This will, no donut, continue to have an impact on every aspect of convention life.

Trevin Wax correctly points out,

  • “ we plant more and more churches in bluer parts of the country, we will find ourselves in more and more conversations with brothers and sisters who don’t vote like we do….It’s safe to assume that this partisan divide is unlikely to disappear in the immediate future….And so we are faced with an important question: Can Southern Baptists partner together on mission, in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message, as a display of the ethnically diverse kingdom of God, and tolerate divergent views regarding political priorities?

-The convention is actively working through this issue, so it is hard to say exactly how it will play out. But, I think it is safe to say that convention leadership is pursuing racial diversity at all costs (See 2021 SBC Book of Reports, pgs. 30-35).

Concluding Thoughts...

-There are many things going on within the SBC. Many of them are very positive.

  • Unreached peoples are being reached with the gospel through the work of our International and North American Mission boards.

  • Salvations are happening.

  • Baptisms are occurring.

  • Churches are being planted.

  • Men and women are being discipled around the world.

  • Men and women are flocking to our Seminaries in unprecedented numbers.

  • The big three commitments of the SBC are alive and well.

But, there are also some concerning things going on in the SBC…

  • The rise and lingering issue of sexual abuse.

  • More and more churches ordaining women into the pastorate.

  • The influence of liberal politics.

  • The mounting cultural pressure around transgenderism.

  • Issues and racial and social justice.

  • Factionalism.

Will some of these new issues facing the convention grow up and choke out some of the longstanding convictions? It seems that some are threatening to do just that, even if the effort is not yet strong enough. Time will tell how these things work themselves out in the convention. It’s already happening in other denominations and organizations.

For 176 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has united around the work of the gospel and the planting and strengthening of churches. These are worthy causes; biblical causes. And the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ will continue to stand on this sacred work entrusted to us by our King. But, can these things continue to hold the convention together as cultural tensions rise? Time will tell...

I pray that we can put aside worldly differences for the sake of the Kingdom...

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